Women in Nepali society: An overview of Lichhavi era and Vedic age

Women in the Licchavi era were not just confined to the household works. They were given an equal opportunity to contribute in the society.

Shreena Nepal

  • Read Time 4 min.

Long struggle for the recognition of equality, struggle for fundamental rights, struggle for social inclusion, struggle for identity, struggle for existence, the list goes on. The struggle does not seem to end any time soon.

According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2022, South Asia ranks the lowest among the eight regions, with only 62.3 percent of the gender gap closed in 2022. This lack of progress continues the gender gap for 197 years, due to a broad stagnation in gender parity scores across most countries in the region. Bangladesh and Nepal lead regional performance with over 69 percent of their gender gaps closed.

So when did this disparity start? Our history was not always like this. Consider the following.

During the Vedic era, both men and women were in equal footing. In fact, women were given the privilege of choosing their husbands, the tradition known as swayamvar. We all have heard one or the other story of Draupadi choosing her own husband. Wives were known as ardhangini which means better half. They were not better halves in theory but in practice as well. They had a major say in decision making.

Gods were incomplete without their better halves, so they were mentioned together with the goddesses: Sita-Ram, Radha-Krishna, Laxmi-Narayan, Siva-Parvati.

Manusmriti, one of the Hindu books, says:

यत्र नार्यस्तु पूज्यन्ते रमन्ते तत्र देवताः ।

यत्रैतास्तु न पूज्यन्ते सर्वास्तत्राफलाः क्रियाः ।।

This means where women are honored, divinity blossoms and where women are dishonored, all actions no matter how noble, remain unfruitful. This shows how everyone was morally obligated to treat a woman with sensitivity, respect and love.

Coming down to the Lichhavi era, the first ever written avilekh (inscription), “Chabahilko Avilekh” was established by woman, Charumati. She has mentioned that with all generosities and religious practices she wanted to acquire purusatwa and want to get away from satitwa in her next birth. While many have interpreted the avilekh to mean different things, we can get the notion that women during the Lichhavi period were learned ones and they had the right to contribute to the society.

Sati system has been mentioned in Changunarayan Sthanko Maandevko Avilkeh, which was established by King Mandev. King Mandev after his father’s death stopped his mother from going into self-immolation (sati), from which we can realize that sati system was not forced. Those who voluntarily wanted chose this option. It became an essential custom during the medieval period.

Pashupatiko Aabhirigominiko Avilekh is the avilekh established by Paramabhimaani’s daughter-in-law Aabhiri for her late husband. This also indicates that sati system was not a compulsion and even after the death of their husbands women were respected and they were given the freedom of doing the religious duties as they wished. There’s history of 24 queens becoming sati for Parthivendra Malla, the king of Kantipur.  We see the change of values and norms according to the wishes of the men. However, it is yet to be known why there was the option of sati system for women during the Lichhavi period.

The Pashupati Tilgangako Mandevko Avilekh, established by King Mandev for his mother, shows that mothers had a special position in the society, they were respected, loved and acknowledged in every possible way.

Lajimpaatko Chyamsindurko Avilekh, established by King Mandev, enshrines his wife’s qualities regarding how beautiful and intelligent she was. This shows wives were respected and treated as equals.  Bishnupadukako Fediko Avilekh was established as desired by the King in order to keep the work of the queen. From this we can interpret that wives were kept in equal footing and they were adored by their husbands and were provided with recognition.

Queens have been addressed as ‘Shree,’ a highest form of respect at the Lichhavi era. Lajimpaatko Gunawatiko Avilekh was established by King Mandev’s wife Bhuktani for her father, which shows that women even after marriage were given the liberty to recognize their birth family.

Suryaghatko Bijayawatiko Avilekh was established by Mandev’s daughter Bijayawati. She has appreciated the queen in the avilekh. It also speaks about the education of the princess Bijayawati. It mentions that she was a learned singer, dancer and had many more other skills. Bijayawati married Devlaav whose identity is still unclear. But since after marriage Devlaav stayed at the kingdom of Mandev, this gives crucial evidence that Dolaji system (where a bridegroom after marriage adopted the name of his wife) came into practice since then. Thus, this avilekh indicates that women were provided with the education and skills, and to encourage them, such skills were appreciated through avilekhs.

Thankot Aadinarayanko Basantadevko Avilekh was established by King Basantadev. This avilekh mentions that a birta(village) was given to Basantadev’s sister Jayasundari to rule. The people were given the order to follow the instructions of Jayasundari and those who didn’t do so were sanctioned. This avilekh gives a clear guidance on women’s political status in the Licchavi period. Giving the responsibility of handling the whole village, the administrative works and supervising them, shows the trust reposed on the leadership and the capability of Jayasundari. It also emphasizes the notion that women were considered equally capable to rule.

Sitapailako Basantadevko Avilekh also mentions that Jayasundari had built taps and many other infrastructures as an act of piety for herself and her father. Mrigasthali Jane Baatoko Ramdevko Palako Avilekh mentions about a woman named Maanmati protecting some land as guthi. So, women in the Licchavi era were not just confined to the household works, they were given an equal opportunity to contribute in the society. They were even encouraged to invest their knowledge, build infrastructures and establish themselves.

RishikeshShaha in his book Ancient and Medieval Nepal has mentioned that, “Men and women enjoyed equal status in performing religious and social duties. Women also set up religious trusts and images as their tribute to the memory of their deceased relatives.” As a matter of fact, women during the Licchavi period were allowed to participate in each and every religious practice they wanted to.

Compare the situations as portrayed in the avilekhs mentioned above with what is happening today in Nepal and we see the stark differences in the situation of women then and today.

According to the United Nations Development Program’s latest Gender Social Norms Index (GSNI) report, “half of people worldwide still believe men make better political leaders than women, and more than 40 percent believe men make better business executives than women.”

Patriarchy is the rule of the game in politics.  Even today, nearly all women are elected as members of parliament through proportional system, rather than through the first past the post system. Majority of people even today blame women’s dress and appearance for violence against them.

As a society we are regressing in terms of equality and respect for women.

Women were appreciated in the past for their qualities. Today they are objectified and taken as a source of pleasure.  Women were valued as goddesses and better halves of men, today women as mothers are not able to provide citizenships to their children through their independent identities.

As a society we are regressing in terms of equality and respect for women.

Shreena Nepal is a BALLB student at Kathmandu School of Law.